City, county meet to hash out ESAD sewer buy
Months of negotiations over a financial agreement between the city of Port St. Joe and Gulf County have stalled considerably over the past several months as disagreements over contractual details and timelines have left the parties on different pages.
In a joint workshop called September 21, the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners and the Port St. Joe Board of City Commissioners gathered to discuss the holdups, hoping to reach a resolution that would allow the project to move forward.
“I think it’s time to move forward one way or another,” said County Administrator Michael Hammond, opening the discussion.
The agreement involves the city’s purchase of the sewer system currently servicing the Gulf Aire area of St. Joe Beach from the current private owners, ESAD, with financial assistance in the sum of $500,000 from the county.
A large source of disagreement between the two parties involves the city’s plans to also acquire the sewer system currently servicing the Beacon Hill neighborhood from the City of Mexico Beach.
The city claims that their engineers have recommended that the flow from the additional customers in Beacon Hill will be essential to ensuring that the city can operate the ESAD lines smoothly.
“Our engineers have told us that without the lift station and Beacon Hill customers, there’s not enough flow just to take on the ESAD customers,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett. “We got another opinion from them, and the last sentence of that opinion says in order to fully validate this option, we would need additional information on the Gulf Aire system to ensure this option’s viability.”
“We can’t take on something if we don’t know it’s going to function properly. It’d just be worse for the folks that are on it now. We’ve all agreed that’s a good deal for the city. We know that. But it’s got to work.”
The Mayor also elaborated that engineering for the project was only about 60 percent complete, despite the city having commissioned it in February.
However, County Administrator Michael Hammond argued that the county’s staff believed it should be simple to get the system up and running.
Further, Hammond explained to the city commissioners that the county was reluctant to sign over access to necessary land usage in Beacon Hill without a fully executed contract regarding the city’s purchase of the ESAD sewer system and a clear timeline for the project.
“We’ve kicked the can around,” said Hammond. “If the city says yes, fine, and they say no, then we will go on and do our own thing, no hard feelings. But I think it’s time to move forward one way or the other. And that’s plenty of time to get that going.”
In a new draft of the memorandum of understanding between the city and county over the ESAD purchase that was distributed at the meeting, the county added language specifying a certain time frame in which the agreement between the city and ESAD needed to be executed in order to still be eligible for the county’s financial contribution.
“The county is not going to wait three years for you to build a lift station in order to get Beacon Hill up online. That’s not our intent,” said Hammond. “… The city’s had a dry line since 2008 that runs within a few feet of this system.”
In the drafted memorandum, the county would withdraw its financial contribution should the city fail to execute an agreement for the purchase of the system from ESAD by October 31 of this year or fail to have the system up and running by June 1 of next year.
Hammond said he recommends the time parameters to ensure that some movement is made on the project, which has been years in the making. He planned to raise the time constraints for a vote at the county’s September 27 meeting.
But city officials, including Commissioner Scott Haffman, questioned the county’s need to rush the purchasing process, especially with engineering work still incomplete.
“It seems like we’re being pressured to make that purchase of the private business plant before we have the time to get all these other things in line,” he said.
Hoffman went on to say that the city has been made aware of some existing problems with the ESAD system, including the overflow of sewage after heavy rain.
“… It looks like its a good deal for the city if we can get what the city needs to know that it’s a good deal,” he said.
County Commissioner Patrick Farrell is a part owner of the ESAD sewer line and has recused himself from previous county votes on the matter. While he was present at the September 22 meeting, he did not speak on the record.
The county decided to proceed with putting the time constraints up for a vote at their Tuesday meeting, though several expressed that they would be open to expanding the timeline to better fit the estimates laid out by the city’s engineering team.
If the commissioners vote in favor of the constraints, the city said they would need to bring the matter up for a vote themselves. They also expressed that they would likely seek to work some contingencies into the agreement in the event that the engineering deems the purchase to be inadvisable or construction processes take longer than anticipated.